For decades, companies have defined the channels their customers must use to contact them. But phrases like, "We are available by phone weekdays from 9am until 4pm Eastern Standard Time," and "We will attempt to answer the emails we receive within 48 hours, but times vary based on incoming volume" are quickly becoming a thing of the past. The long-held notion that companies control the conversation is being challenged by social media.
In a world where any customer can, in seconds, tweet or post to Facebook a pithy product review or share an experience they had with a brand, companies are forced to entirely rethink how they interact with their customers. Step one, probably the hardest step, is realizing they are no longer in control. The power of social media has empowered the consumer to reach literally hundreds or thousands of people in seconds. And because we know a consumer’s closest friends are three to five times more likely to share the same preferences for products and brands, this newfound power is not to be underestimated.
Sure, companies have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. Yes, a few thousand companies are already searching Twitter for mentions and engaging customers. This is only a start. The real transformation happens when the companies let go of the conversation and instead work to nurture it. The brands who offer tools to their customers to increase the amount of conversation and encourage their customers to discuss the pros and cons of their products will be the winners who emerge from this disruptive time.
Companies like Get Satisfaction and UserVoice offer tools that change the balance of power between a company and its customers. Get Satisfaction has a fantastic manifesto, or "Company-Customer Pact," which defines a new relationship between a brand and its customers, encouraging public dialog, warts and all, but expecting productive discussion in return for the company’s helpful engagement.
While product forums from companies like Jive Software have been around for many years, I believe public conversations about brands will now be distributed in nature, spread across the web into thousands of tiny corners. The challenge for companies is figuring out how to manage this. A conversation could start with a tweet, be directed to a help forum, be responded to in email, updated in a blog post, and then broadcast on Facebook. How will this be tracked, measured and monitored? This market is ripe with opportunity for both brands and software platforms built to nurture the distributed web-wide conversation. And brands who support a public dialog will engender more respect from their customers than those who turn a blind eye to it—or worse, try to shut it down. Ultimately, companies become more customer-centric from this disruption. I am sure United Airlines wishes they had just paid for the passenger’s guitar they broke now that the music video he recorded chronicling the ordeal spread virally and has been viewed more than five million times!
The company/customer relationship is but one relationship forever changed by social media. Similar transformations are happening between companies and their employees and companies and their vendors. New companies and tools will emerge to address these situations. At Venrock, we are looking for the entrepreneurs that are pioneering this space and embracing this opportunity.
David Pakman joined Venrock from eMusic where he was the CEO. Prior to joining eMusic, he was co-founder of Myplay, Inc., the broadband application services company that introduced the "digital music locker" and pioneered the locker category, later sold to Bertelsmann. Before Myplay, he was Vice President at N2K Entertainment, which created the first digital music download service. He also was the co-creator of Apple Computer’s Music Group. Pakman is a graduate of and a member of the Board of Overseers at University of Pennsylvania’s School of Engineering, serves on the Leadership Committee for the UJA-NY’s Music For Youth, and is an avid musician and songwriter.